Super Smash Brothers: The Ultimate Experience?

It’s finally here! It seems as if we have been waiting for Super Smash Brothers: Ultimate for years. The first trailer for the game released in March, and the hype has continued to build as subsequent announcements have trickled out over the months.

Don’t tell me you don’t remember Super Smash Brothers! The original game was released in 1999 (with this classic trailer) and quickly became a way to settle the playground debates over who would win in a fight among classic Nintendo characters like Mario vs. Link, or Kirby vs. Donkey Kong.

I played the original game, but my interaction with the series hit its peak with the second entry 1. My brother and I would spend countless hours playing the game. We wanted to unlock every character, stage, and secret the game had to hold.

When its sequel released during my high school years, I was saddened to learn that some of my favorite characters were cut. (How could they leave out Roy?) But I accepted the losses and still enjoyed the game.

Well, good news! One of the main announcements about the newest release is that: “Everyone is here!” And, for those of us with a connection to this series, that is a welcome proclamation. Every character from the previous four games in the series 2 is playable. That makes 63 returning fighters (how many can you come up with?), including those who were not available in the previous game.

So what gives? Why include of all these characters? Are they just tapping into our nostalgia for previous characters to rope us in for another round of the series?

We can be blinded by our nostalgia. Something about the memory of times past touches us and brings us back to another time and place, which is usually an idealized version of the reality. It gives us a little boost for a moment, and then we move on with our lives.

It’s fair to ask if the inclusion of so many past characters is an attempt to take advantage of our nostalgia. Given the meticulous care series director Masahiro Sakurai puts into these games, I sincerely doubt that this is just nostalgia-pandering to sell more copies. Nostalgia certainly is a factor, but it is not the only selling point they have.

This game is not just a remake of the original with all the characters thrown together. No- it is a chance to bring together past and present and create a new experience. Everyone who has played the game has their favorites: whether you first played fifteen years ago or five. Now more people can come together and engage their favorites on the same stage.

After all, these characters (even the non-Nintendo ones) mean something to us. Maybe you first loved Pac-Man or Donkey Kong at a local arcade. Maybe you remember childhood games of Street Fighter or Star Fox 64. Or maybe you grew up entranced with Sonic games.

Rather than take advantage of our nostalgia, I think this game is meant to celebrate everything that has contributed to the legacy of the franchise. Each character has helped to making the series what it is today.

In much the same way, when we look back on our lives, so many people have been influential in shaping us and making us into the person we are today. How great is it when we have the opportunity to bring many of those people together for a shared experience, like a wedding or a reunion? Sure, we tell stories about the past and recall times gone by. But we also make new experiences in the present, celebrating all that we have shared.

It is important to take that time to recognize the past, celebrate it, and, when all else fails…throw down against your best friend, because Wario is going down! So let’s enjoy the new game and have the ultimate experience.

 

//

Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Farley Santos.

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The Hard Truth of “You’re Wrong”

My eyebrow raised in an accidental fashion, proof I’m no good at poker. But, in my defense, I must have misheard—or maybe I mis-asked the question. So, I tried again.

“Is the creature guilty?”

Without skipping a beat, she responded, “No. It wasn’t his fault.”

We stared at each other for a moment, and she said again, “It wasn’t his fault. He had a bad life—I mean Victor treated him terribly, so he didn’t do anything wrong.”

I thought for a moment of Mary Shelley. What would she say of her creature in Frankenstein? Would she say that he was innocent, that he didn’t do anything wrong? I don’t think so… so, I changed tack.

“Victor certainly neglected the creature, and he is guilty for that. But, the creature did kill Victor’s little brother, and he kills Victor’s friend Henry Clerval, and he kills Elizabeth.”

She nodded in response, though not yielding any ground: “Yeah, but he was doing what he thought was right. And I mean, people were so mean to him.”

I nodded slowly, but it wasn’t in agreement. I wanted to point to the logic of the creature’s actions: “Yeah, people were mean to him, but he did kill people. Especially those murders of Henry and Elizabeth—those were premeditated. He planned those.”

“But Victor made him that way.”

“Was it because of the way he looked that made him a monster—or was it perhaps because he was doing monstrous things?”

She looked right at me. “I think he’s innocent. He was just doing what he thinks is right—he’s just living his truth.”

And, there it was. Something about the conversation was bothering me, and I couldn’t name it until she said it for me: “… just living his truth.”

So I tried again, “What if it’s not a matter of killing? What if the creature hated women or a specific race? What if that was his truth? Would that change anything?”

Her eyebrows furrowed, “Well, if it’s their truth. And if they have a good reason for it, like the creature did… He had a really, really bad life. Victor was a bad father. People were violent with him. And, he was alone. So, that like makes his truth. So, for him, he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Ok. But he did kill people, right?”

She shrugged, “Well, I mean, technically…”

“So, you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling the creature he did anything wrong? Like, if you met him in a coffee shop as a friend, and he told you everything he had done in Mary Shelley’s novel. Would you say he’s wrong?”

“I don’t… I don’t think you can say that to people. I mean, everyone has their life. So you can’t judge them or judge their actions. That’s not OK. You have to let them be themselves.”

***

Though I spend my days teaching high school students literature, we frequently explore questions of right and wrong. I bring in discussions of character and agency. Of choice and context. Of guilt and culpability. I bring in legal terms—mens rea, actus rea, etc. We talk about responsibilities and obligations, and we wrestle with how we interact and what we owe to society as a whole… Sometimes, we even talk about people perhaps being wrong.

But, relativism doesn’t just occur in hallways lined with lockers. At one time in my own life, I might have even argued that right and wrong were relative, that if someone’s “truth” tells them to do something, then I have no right to tell them otherwise—no right to say they are wrong.

While I’ve grown out of that, I think I get why it’s hard to accept. I get why people are hesitant to say “you’re wrong” and risk being labeled judgmental. I get how it can be scary to speak up against someone who is lying. I get how it can be awkward to correct a friend, let alone a stranger, when they risk hurting themselves or others.

In the case of Frankenstein, as in every other case, murder is a pretty obvious wrong. Still, I hope that people would empathize with a creature who was ostracized, hated, and hurting—perhaps even being bold enough to show love. In an effort to love though, I worry that we might not be willing to point out wrongs which occur outside the pages of literature—wrongs we encounter too often in our own lives: when a friend drinks too much or too often…when a loved one lives in an abusive relationship…when someone is bullied, shamed, or objectified on social media…

It can be scary, hard, and awkward, but I also think it’s a part of loving one another—authentically loving, which isn’t always easy. Despite it being uncomfortable, it is more loving to help guide others towards genuine truth. Sometimes, we might have to show love by saying “you’re wrong.”

-//-

 

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The Nicaraguan Church, Eight Months Later

Seven Months In

When the stalemate between the Ortega regime and most of the populace began around late July, the world stopped following Nicaragua. But as the conflict completes seven months since its beginning, it’s certainly not over. It continues, prolonged into the indefinite future. Will there be peace in 2021, when the next elections are scheduled? Or might there appear a solution in the meantime? It’s impossible to tell.

One NGO, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH), estimated in September that 512 people had died at the hands of government and pro-government (paramilitary and parapolice) forces since April 18.1 The number keeps climbing.

In the thick of the recent violence, the Catholic Church has lived up to the heroic reputation it gained in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. For continually siding with the people, priests and bishops have received a host of death threats. The papal nuncio and Silvio José Báez, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, were physically attacked in early July. Priests continue to be harassed by the government and its supporters. But the Church hasn’t backed down.

In my estimation, some recognition is due.

Pulling together “pieces for a portrait,” as María López Vigil titled her biography of St. Óscar Romero, it’s time to sketch the history of the Church in Nicaragua in the last seven months.

*****

The Death Threats

On April 18, the Ortega regime announced it would reform social security in Nicaragua. The system was risking insolvency, so pensions were to be reduced and payments into the system were to be increased. The following day, students went out to protest. But a few days after that, it wasn’t just students and pensioners.

Tens of thousands of people” were opposed to the new measures, the whole of civil society, it seemed. The streets were filled with “university students, pensioners, environmentalists, feminists, religious leaders, black and Indigenous activists, journalists as well as left-wing and right-wing opposition groups.”

Since 2006, Ortega has consolidated power with his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo at his side. Under the guise of revolutionary politics and nostalgia, it’s been business as usual.

April was an eruption of what festered:” of all the wounds accrued from the US-backed Somoza dynasty from the 1940s to the 70s, the revolution that brought Ortega and other revolutionaries to power in 1979, the US-funded Contra War that followed, and the neoliberal nineties. And now, the wounds to Nicaragua’s democracy since 2006.

The protests looked like real potential for change in a Nicaragua in sore need of it.

And Nicaraguan clerics got behind the broad coalition calling for change, especially José Silvio Baéz, an auxiliary bishop for Managua whose Twitter feed constantly declared support for the protesters. Then came death threats.

In late May, the rector of the Jesuit university in Managua, the Central American University (UCA), Fr. José Alberto Idiaquez, S.J. had allowed hundreds of people to shelter themselves at the UCA when protests turned violent.2 Meanwhile, bishops and other prominent Church figures had been participating in a peace dialogue with the Ortega government. It became clear the regime would not comply with agreed-upon terms as students continued to die after agreements were reached.

In early June paramilitaries sent death threats, and they would become more credible in mid-June as the national dialogue, as it was called, failed.

Idiaquez was a prime target. As the rector of the UCA, he had high visibility. So was Silvio Baéz, who maintained the highest visibility of all the senior clerics in the country. Other clerics were attacked, including the bishop of Estelí. It wouldn’t be until July that the Church would become a bigger problem for the Ortega regime.

To date no cleric has been killed in Nicaragua. Ortega probably remembers that the death of six Jesuit priests in 1989 turned the tables for the Salvadoran government of the time as the US cut off military aid.

There are other tactics to push the Church out of the way.

*****

A Fake News Campaign

Beginning in July, there was a surge in violence. Preparing for July 19th, the anniversary of the revolution’s victory in 1989, the government needed a victory, even if it may be a fictitious one.

At the time rumors of sapos, trolls spinning a version of events on social media, began to appear. But they only seemed to be capable of mimicking government rhetoric, so they were easily outed. But branding the opposition as terrorists who push fake news has been effective in keeping some loyal supporters.

Not only did the government “[launch] a new crackdown on the Catholic Church, stopping a group of priests who were trying to broker a dialogue between pro- and anti-government forces,” but it set up alternative theological narratives to claim legitimacy.

Rosario Murillo, the Vice President and wife of Daniel Ortega, described repression of protesters as a “miraculous event, the work of faith in God.” The same day, paramilitaries prevented Catholic priests from mediating a peaceful solution to the day’s clash.

At the same time, La Candelaria church in the department of Estelí was surrounded and blockaded by police and paramilitaries, trapping priests and parishioners inside.

In Diriamba, San Sebastián Basilica was also surrounded. As Baéz, Managua Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes, and the papal nuncio arrived to intervene, they were attacked by the paramilitaries waiting outside. They were punched and their episcopal insignia stolen; Báez was photographed afterwards, his white cassock stained with blood from a wound on his arm.

But the attack wasn’t designed just to intimidate. As they approached, the crowd was yelling “¡queremos paz!”, “we want peace!”

The bishops were being used to craft Ortega’s counternarrative. It was classic gaslighting: the people were told that Ortega sympathizers only wanted peace. Clearly there was no attack on the bishops, even though it was caught on camera.

Days later, the bishops declared, again, that they were still willing to mediate with the Ortega regime. But in vain.

In Managua, Divina Misericordia church was surrounded. Students trying to evacuate from the National University (UNAN) were trapped inside. Paramilitaries fired at the church all night, leaving one dead.

Even after a national strike on July 13 in which the streets were empty and businesses closed to demand a change in government, the Ortega regime still managed to scrounge up supporters for a rally on July 19 to give the illusion of real division in the country instead of a government attacking its own people. On the 39th anniversary of the revolution, Daniel Ortega gave a speech in which he asserted that his government would not be overthrown by foreign interference, and claimed that the bishops were golpistas, attempting a coup d’état by their public actions.

Aside from Daniel Ortega appearing on Fox News less than a week later, about then is when foreign media lost most attention, leaving Nicaraguans without hope for a realistic exit strategy.

*****

Languishing without Solutions

Since the end of July, solutions for this crisis have continued to dry up.

Protesters know how willing the government is to take their lives. Paramilitaries are well armed.

Trusted observers of the crisis are being removed from the country. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was kicked out of Nicaragua at the beginning of September after publishing a report critical of the Ortega regime.

Violence continues and arbitrary detention has become standard practice. Meanwhile, there is increasing concern over the treatment of hundreds of political prisoners, whom the government recognized only a couple weeks ago.

The Church still has not backed down despite continued threats and attacks. In July, several churches were desecrated in Jinotega, in northern Nicaragua. After threats against Bishop Álvarez of Matagalpa, the clergy of Matagalpa and Managua closed ranks behind Álvarez, declaring their support at the beginning of September. And a priest in León was attacked in mid-September, and may lose an eye.

And only days ago, a priest hearing confessions in Managua’s cathedral was the subject of an acid attack.

The ongoing conflict has not undermined the Church’s solidarity with the people, but grounded it.

“We are being mocked and insulted; it’s painful. But I can’t but continue to support the people. I wouldn’t be much of a priest if I didn’t,” Fr. Edwin Román Calderón said.

*****

The Best of the Church among the Worst of the World

As a Jesuit friend of mine told me, it’s as though the grandparents who won the revolution are killing their own grandchildren for having the same revolutionary desires.

For today’s Nicaraguan clergy, I imagine it’s much the same as it is for all the young people who continue to protest. A generation ago, their forebears made the Church in Central America famous for uncompromising commitment to the people of God. Unfortunately, they’ve also been given the opportunity to show the best the Church has in some of the worst of circumstances the world has to offer.

As the Universal Church basks in the glow of El Salvador’s first saint, it’s also time we recognize the Church in Nicaragua for the trauma suffered this year. Undeterred by violence, the Church has risked much for peace in a country where demons roam loose again.

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Ariana Grande: “True Love Doesn’t Exist”

Ariana Grande’s song “Thank u, next” and recent tweet are renewing a contentious historical debate: is true love even a thing?

The song highlights Grande’s illustrious list of ex-boyfriends. After naming each one, she chidley yet playfully chants, “Thank you…next.” She continues by declaring that her incipient love interest will be different. It’s not another man. As she sings, she’s “met someone else,” and “her name is Ari.” She wants to love herself.

So much for true love. Ari has effectively killed Prince Charming for herself as well as for her 59 million Twitter followers. (In comparison, President Trump has only 55 million. Ari wins.)

Following the song release, Grande confirmed her condemnation of true love in a provocative and sarcasm-laden tweet:

Instagram Photo

 

A few hours later, she followed up:

But that take-back lasted exactly one minute, when she tweeted “but still, f*** that.”

Frankly, I’m going to side with her on this one. True love is dead, and Ari has declared it. At least, in the way that our culture likes to depict true love…

If we’re expecting that perfect someone to emerge from an enchanted castle and sweep us off our feet, we’re setting ourselves up for disaster. Not a single person in this vast universe is perfect – including you and me – so we shouldn’t expect one imperfect person and one imperfect person to come together to equal one perfect couple. Less than one and less than one will never equal two. It just doesn’t add up.

Based on her tweets, even Grande gets hungry and cranky, and she is pretty much as close to perfect as you can get! Am I right??

Instead of searching for true love in some idealized, Hollywood fantasy, we need a different model.

Sick and tired of an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend? Sick and tired of chasing unhealthy relationships? Can’t even??

We need to take up Ari’s offer. Turn inward. Focus on ourselves. Heal. And let me add: Pray.

Then we might regain the strength to give and receive love not merely in the romanticized way that our culture often dictates, but as God loves us, as imperfect as we are.

So thank u, Ari, for smashing our flawed idea of true love. We just might find that a better one replaces it.

 

//

Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user lindsay neilson photos.

 

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Ariana Grande: “True Love Doesn’t Exist”

Ariana Grande’s song “Thank u, next” and recent tweet are renewing a contentious historical debate: is true love even a thing?

The song highlights Grande’s illustrious list of ex-boyfriends. After naming each one, she chidley yet playfully chants, “Thank you…next.” She continues by declaring that her incipient love interest will be different. It’s not another man. As she sings, she’s “met someone else,” and “her name is Ari.” She wants to love herself.

So much for true love. Ari has effectively killed Prince Charming for herself as well as for her 59 million Twitter followers. (In comparison, President Trump has only 55 million. Ari wins.)

Following the song release, Grande confirmed her condemnation of true love in a provocative and sarcasm-laden tweet:

Instagram Photo

 

A few hours later, she followed up:

But that take-back lasted exactly one minute, when she tweeted “but still, f*** that.”

Frankly, I’m going to side with her on this one. True love is dead, and Ari has declared it. At least, in the way that our culture likes to depict true love…

If we’re expecting that perfect someone to emerge from an enchanted castle and sweep us off our feet, we’re setting ourselves up for disaster. Not a single person in this vast universe is perfect – including you and me – so we shouldn’t expect one imperfect person and one imperfect person to come together to equal one perfect couple. Less than one and less than one will never equal two. It just doesn’t add up.

Based on her tweets, even Grande gets hungry and cranky, and she is pretty much as close to perfect as you can get! Am I right??

Instead of searching for true love in some idealized, Hollywood fantasy, we need a different model.

Sick and tired of an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend? Sick and tired of chasing unhealthy relationships? Can’t even??

We need to take up Ari’s offer. Turn inward. Focus on ourselves. Heal. And let me add: Pray.

Then we might regain the strength to give and receive love not merely in the romanticized way that our culture often dictates, but as God loves us, as imperfect as we are.

So thank u, Ari, for smashing our flawed idea of true love. We just might find that a better one replaces it.

 

//

Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user lindsay neilson photos.

 

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A Compassionate Conservative

At a particularly low moment for the Republican party, then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was asked to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment.” To which Rockefeller replied: “You’re looking at it, I’m all that is left.”

With the recent passing of President George Bush Sr., the Rockefeller, or Country Club Republicans, have at last gone extinct. It is a species of Republican that a younger generation of Millennials would have a hard time recognizing on today’s political spectrum, even though by the early 1970’s it continued to dominate the GOP. They were center-right on economic issues, and tended to hold socially progressive views, if they held views on social issues at all. The line between this species of Republican and Secretary Hillary Clinton might from a distance be obscured. It was perhaps not, therefore, surprising when Bush Sr. revealed that he had crossed party lines to vote Democrat in the 2016 presidential election.

But this extinct species had another now unrecognizable element: It was dominated by WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants). The acronym is incomplete. President Richard Nixon was white, of English heritage, and Protestant; he would not have qualified. He was a self-made man from the West coast who attended public schools; a WASP is something into which one is born. They have always been, therefore, a minority; though I’m sure they would prefer the term ‘club’.

The WASP establishment once dominated the political and economic life of the United States. It was the closest thing we had to an aristocracy: wealth and privilege based upon lineage. By the middle of the 20th century, WASPs held all but one of the Supreme Court positions, dominated the State Department, the CIA, and a myriad of other government institutions and positions which required appointment, rather than election.

By the end of Bush Sr.’s first, and only, term as President in 1992, the WASP establishment was a spent force. The upward mobility of other ethnic groups, especially Irish and Italian, had dislodged the WASPs from political dominance. The Ivy League schools (once WASP institutions), and the Northeast boarding schools which fed them, had since dropped their quotas on Catholics and Jews. And the wealth created by the 1980’s stock market, as well as the burgeoning tech industry, had long since out-earned those individuals whose money was ‘old’.

Born into a politically-prominent New England family, George Herbert Walker Bush could trace his ancestry to the last governor of Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. His father, Prescott Bush, represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. He prepped at Phillips Academy and, after serving as a naval aviator in the Second World War, graduated from Yale: superb WASP credentials. In fact, Bush’s career largely followed the changing fortunes of the WASP establishment to which he belonged. After serving briefly as a one-term congressman, Bush began the cursus honorum of appointed positions that were the hallmark of his caste: U.N. Ambassador, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Envoy to China, and Director of the CIA. But by the time he was ready to make a bid for the presidency in 1980, the political landscape in which he grew up had changed. More conservative forces within the Republican party had coalesced around a former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, and it was clear that the Rockefeller Republicans’ days were numbered. Realizing he could not win, Bush pulled out of the race, but was invited by Reagan to join the Republican ticket for Vice President, the last olive branch offered to the old guard.

By 1988, everything Bush represented seemed to be a liability. His WASP credentials, which might have aided him a generation before, became a millstone. He was ‘elitist’, ‘out of touch with the common folk’, and the new Reagan Republicans were suspicious of his conservative credentials. His presidential election came at a cost: He was a Rockefeller Republican expected to be Reagan’s ideological successor, he was a WASP expected to be more down to earth, and he was a foreign policy diplomat expected to focus on souring domestic issues. In short, he was expected to be something he was not. Though leading the country though its last successful war, and skillfully managing the decline of the Soviet Union, Bush broke an explicit campaign promise not to raise taxes. He did this for the now politically unforgivable reason that he thought it was right.

Much has been written on the demise of the WASP from political life, and most of it bears the subtext ‘good riddance’. As a group the WASPs have many faults: they tend to be elitist, exclusionary, and inert to change. But this depiction, often parodied and lampooned, does not do the group justice. They are also polite, civil, civic minded, scrupulously modest, and raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. Their motto could be to whom much has been given, much will be expected. The ultimate test for the WASP was putting one’s country before one’s private interest, even in the face of grave temptation, as when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, rather than obey Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Or when CIA Director William Colby was honest about the CIA’s sordid past in public congressional hearings because it offended his sense of duty and character to lie.

It might be said that I am painting too sympathetic a picture of this endangered class, and this is perhaps true. Yet it is easy for me to believe that Bush Sr. raised taxes for the same reason that he took on the thankless job of Republican Party Chairman during the Watergate scandal, for the same reason why he agreed to head the CIA after their public humiliation, and for the same reason why he, alone among Republicans, stood on the tarmac to say goodbye to the deeply unpopular Democratic President Johnson when he departed office in 1969: because he thought it was the right thing to do.

There is a story from Bush’s youth which is telling. Having once bragged to his mother that he had scored three goals in a soccer match, she replied “That’s nice, George, but how did the team do?”

 

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A Compassionate Conservative

At a particularly low moment for the Republican party, then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was asked to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment.” To which Rockefeller replied: “You’re looking at it, I’m all that is left.”

With the recent passing of President George Bush Sr., the Rockefeller, or Country Club Republicans, have at last gone extinct. It is a species of Republican that a younger generation of Millennials would have a hard time recognizing on today’s political spectrum, even though by the early 1970’s it continued to dominate the GOP. They were center-right on economic issues, and tended to hold socially progressive views, if they held views on social issues at all. The line between this species of Republican and Secretary Hillary Clinton might from a distance be obscured. It was perhaps not, therefore, surprising when Bush Sr. revealed that he had crossed party lines to vote Democrat in the 2016 presidential election.

But this extinct species had another now unrecognizable element: It was dominated by WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants). The acronym is incomplete. President Richard Nixon was white, of English heritage, and Protestant; he would not have qualified. He was a self-made man from the West coast who attended public schools; a WASP is something into which one is born. They have always been, therefore, a minority; though I’m sure they would prefer the term ‘club’.

The WASP establishment once dominated the political and economic life of the United States. It was the closest thing we had to an aristocracy: wealth and privilege based upon lineage. By the middle of the 20th century, WASPs held all but one of the Supreme Court positions, dominated the State Department, the CIA, and a myriad of other government institutions and positions which required appointment, rather than election.

By the end of Bush Sr.’s first, and only, term as President in 1992, the WASP establishment was a spent force. The upward mobility of other ethnic groups, especially Irish and Italian, had dislodged the WASPs from political dominance. The Ivy League schools (once WASP institutions), and the Northeast boarding schools which fed them, had since dropped their quotas on Catholics and Jews. And the wealth created by the 1980’s stock market, as well as the burgeoning tech industry, had long since out-earned those individuals whose money was ‘old’.

Born into a politically-prominent New England family, George Herbert Walker Bush could trace his ancestry to the last governor of Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. His father, Prescott Bush, represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. He prepped at Phillips Academy and, after serving as a naval aviator in the Second World War, graduated from Yale: superb WASP credentials. In fact, Bush’s career largely followed the changing fortunes of the WASP establishment to which he belonged. After serving briefly as a one-term congressman, Bush began the cursus honorum of appointed positions that were the hallmark of his caste: U.N. Ambassador, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Envoy to China, and Director of the CIA. But by the time he was ready to make a bid for the presidency in 1980, the political landscape in which he grew up had changed. More conservative forces within the Republican party had coalesced around a former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, and it was clear that the Rockefeller Republicans’ days were numbered. Realizing he could not win, Bush pulled out of the race, but was invited by Reagan to join the Republican ticket for Vice President, the last olive branch offered to the old guard.

By 1988, everything Bush represented seemed to be a liability. His WASP credentials, which might have aided him a generation before, became a millstone. He was ‘elitist’, ‘out of touch with the common folk’, and the new Reagan Republicans were suspicious of his conservative credentials. His presidential election came at a cost: He was a Rockefeller Republican expected to be Reagan’s ideological successor, he was a WASP expected to be more down to earth, and he was a foreign policy diplomat expected to focus on souring domestic issues. In short, he was expected to be something he was not. Though leading the country though its last successful war, and skillfully managing the decline of the Soviet Union, Bush broke an explicit campaign promise not to raise taxes. He did this for the now politically unforgivable reason that he thought it was right.

Much has been written on the demise of the WASP from political life, and most of it bears the subtext ‘good riddance’. As a group the WASPs have many faults: they tend to be elitist, exclusionary, and inert to change. But this depiction, often parodied and lampooned, does not do the group justice. They are also polite, civil, civic minded, scrupulously modest, and raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. Their motto could be to whom much has been given, much will be expected. The ultimate test for the WASP was putting one’s country before one’s private interest, even in the face of grave temptation, as when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, rather than obey Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Or when CIA Director William Colby was honest about the CIA’s sordid past in public congressional hearings because it offended his sense of duty and character to lie.

It might be said that I am painting too sympathetic a picture of this endangered class, and this is perhaps true. Yet it is easy for me to believe that Bush Sr. raised taxes for the same reason that he took on the thankless job of Republican Party Chairman during the Watergate scandal, for the same reason why he agreed to head the CIA after their public humiliation, and for the same reason why he, alone among Republicans, stood on the tarmac to say goodbye to the deeply unpopular Democratic President Johnson when he departed office in 1969: because he thought it was the right thing to do.

There is a story from Bush’s youth which is telling. Having once bragged to his mother that he had scored three goals in a soccer match, she replied “That’s nice, George, but how did the team do?”

 

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Happy New Year!? – One-Minute Homily

At the beginning of this new (liturgical) year, we’re not asked to do so much except stay awake and allow Christ to make this the best year of our lives.

Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ preaches this week’s One-Minute Homily based on the readings for the first Sunday in Advent, which can be found here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/12021…

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Happy New Year!? – One-Minute Homily

At the beginning of this new (liturgical) year, we’re not asked to do so much except stay awake and allow Christ to make this the best year of our lives.

Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ preaches this week’s One-Minute Homily based on the readings for the first Sunday in Advent, which can be found here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/12021…

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Automation: Machine against Man

The famous job interview question “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” is always a head a head-scratcher. But I am willing to bet that no one wants to answer “replaced by a robot.”

One third of all jobs in today’s market will cease to exist by 2030, according to an article in the New York Times. Another article discusses the major challenges the hotel industry faces as automation sweeps through the front desk, the kitchen and room service. Even the ubiquitous  burger flipping job may soon be obsolete as Flippy makes waves in California. Truck drivers, around 2 million of them, face an uncertain future as self driving trucks are close to becoming a reality. The labor market is experiencing an unprecedented change as automation takes over the job market in the US and the rest of the world.

Technology has been taking jobs from humans since at least the industrial revolution, if not prior. Artisan weavers lost their jobs to mechanized looms for instance. Everything that is used today and even the food that is eaten, has been touched by machines. Trying to imagine a life with only hand made goods is an impossibility. Thus, while job loss due to technology is nothing new, what is unique at this moment in history is the pace at which technology is replacing humans in the workplace. If the tide comes in slowly, everyone has enough time to move to higher ground and find something new to do. If it is an tsunami, the picture is bleak – unless we have early warning systems and escape routes in place.

The knee jerk response to this changing job landscape is to protest automation. Workers are demanding that they be kept on even if their jobs are obsolete. There are even calls to tax robots. That’s akin to sand bagging against a tsunami. It will not work unless every person in the world decides against automation, because whoever uses automation will have a leg up in the market due to cost effectiveness. Similarly, strikes and demands for higher wages can paradoxically drive up the rates at which industries are switching to automation. Universal Basic Income and Negative Income Tax are being considered or implemented in various forms in trials across the world. While economists, politicians and ethicists are figuring out the best way to redistribute wealth, the average citizen needs to examine what are his options in the shifting job market. People can wrestle back control by keeping their options open and by being flexible with choosing new career options.

First, people need to remain light on the their feet, mentally and financially. Americans must let go of the notion that one can follow one’s dreams and passions irrespective of the economic reality. In choosing a career, Americans place considerable emphasis on personal interests, but surprisingly little on practical concerns like the job market or personal talent. But such an approach fails to see that passions do not always match natural talents. One may enjoy singing, but if one has no talent in singing, one can’t expect to have a career in singing. Moreover, a job does not have to fulfill all of one’s needs: there is always the option of following one’s dreams part time while one earns a living at something that is not a childhood dream.

For mid-career and late career workers, being mentally agile would mean being willing to switch careers later in life. This is where the state can assist by providing support for job retraining. With life expectancies creeping up and retirement ages being uncertain, a new career late in life might be several years long.

Being financially flexible would mean not having mountains of debt that trap people and can prevent them from trying new things. First, the reason students go to a four year university must be identified. Is it to learn new skills, to network or to obtain a certificate that proves your job worthiness? Can these be acquired through means besides a four year degree? Educators will argue that the sole purpose of education is not utility in the job market. Education is meant to form the whole individual; teaching the students how to think, how to be creative and most importantly, to help them achieve the end for which they were created. All these are noble goals and must be supported wholeheartedly. But an individual cannot achieve the end for which she was created if she is saddled with a six figure debt at the age of 22 and finds a job that pays barely enough to cover the interest on that debt. She has to be free from the burden of working constantly for years and maybe decades in order to pay for the cost of a college education.

Traditional four year universities can be financially costly if one doesn’t have scholarships. A solution could be a model like the Holberton school, which has a Income Share Agreement for its tuition. With this option, there is no upfront cost to attend the school. Once you find a job, they charge 17% of your monthly salary over 3.5 years only if you are making more than $40,000 per year. Trade schools, instead of universities, are another great low cost option in trying to meet the current job market where it is at. Universities, as part of a low cost model, should start certificate programs in collaboration with industry. In this model, instead of a four year degree, students study through online courses and then take an exam or complete a project to prove their skills and job worthiness. All these strategies would be geared towards reducing the financial burden of student debt on young people. Ultimately, freedom from debt can free people to follow their interests and pursue new careers.

Second, as Christians we should help each other navigate the new job market. People are more than workers, and they are worth more than their paychecks. We are God’s children. Unemployment should be made to be less of a stigma. Being out of a job shouldn’t imply laziness or incompetence. Once being laid off is normalized and freed from the associated taboo, people will be better able to reach out for help and to offer help. Furthermore, on an organizational level, parishes could establish support groups for people looking for work. These groups could provide emotional and financial support, a professional network for the job search and help navigating government programs for the unemployed. Lastly, Catholic universities can step in by offering information about job market trends, retraining programs and career counselling.

Tomorrow when the robots come for our jobs, I hope and pray that we will be in a position to hand over to them cheerfully as we move towards better job opportunities.

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The Limits of Transparency in a Broken World

Can’t the truth set us free?

In the last couple weeks, it was revealed that the US Justice department has secretly (ironic) charged Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange with publicizing government secrets. Also recently, the US Catholic bishops voted down a resolution which would have encouraged the Vatican to release all its documentation on the disgraced Archbishop McCarrick. 1 Last month, Harvard University released a cache of classified admissions data in the context of a lawsuit alleging that the school was discriminating against Asian Americans.

The popularity of Assange, Edward Snowden, and other anti-secrecy activists runs parallel to a deep-seated distrust of institutions, particularly prevalent among young people. The demand for transparency and suspicion of institutions are signs of a desire for truth and goodness, which can so often be absent from human endeavors. Positive results have come about as a result of pressure by folks who stand up to secrecy in institutions: greater accountability for clandestine government operations, more conversation about the inadequacy of the Church’s response to abuse, a facing-up to how we tend to think about race. But is transparency a virtue without limit? Does prudence demand that some secrets best be kept?

As a millenial (I’ll admit it), my gut inclination is to be all about transparency. The truth will set us free. Shining a light into darkness drives away the evil. Why would the government or the Church or a university have anything to hide?

But some folks I respect deeply, people older and wiser than I, have encouraged me to reconsider the deep commitment I feel to transparency. As much as I would like to open my heart and history for all the world to see, that would be foolish and an ineffective way of ministering to people.

Keeping secrets helps protect the lives of our military serving overseas. The seal of confession protects penitents from worry of blackmail or loss of reputation. A university should keep its admissions policy on the hush-hush so that applicants won’t try to game the system.

These arguments for secrecy all boil down to the virtue of prudence, which deals with discerning a good and choosing the best means for achieving it. Sometimes, just given the way that the world works, keeping something secret is the best course of action for saving lives, protecting people’s reputations, or preserving fairness in college admissions. Keeping a secret is not an inherently bad thing.

For example, say a friend tells you that years ago she cheated on an exam in high school, you will likely feel obligated as a good friend to keep that secret. Friendship is a good thing and if keeping a secret in that situation is the best way of maintaining that friendship, you ought to keep the secret. If she was clearly qualified enough to graduate and the effects of her cheating have no bearing on today, it doesn’t make sense to risk her reputation and your friendship just to get the truth out there.

Of course, the argument could be made that secrecy is not the best means in a given situation. If it turns out that the friend’s secret is of a greater magnitude, say that she planted evidence that got a teacher fired. It might be more prudent for you to reproach the friend and encourage her to apologize to the teacher or make some restitution, or in extreme situations, tell the authorities, rather than to simply keep a secret.

*****

I think most would agree that the secrecy around the Church abuse scandal fails the prudence test miserably. The result is that the trust of the faithful in the hierarchy is severely undermined. Secrecy was highly imprudent and transparency must be a part of the path forward.

It is simply worth noting that secrecy, or at least temporarily withholding information, is sometimes the best means to achieving a good. I encourage other transparency champions not to lose sight of prudence as well.

Yet, while I find the arguments for prudence convincing, I still can’t shake the desire for transparency, or perhaps truth may be a better term. The truth does set us free, but the reality is that we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a broken, fallen world. In this fallen world, prudence sometimes dictates that secrets be kept. My longing for truth is a reminder to me that there is another world beyond this one, in which truth and justice reign supreme. My desire can only be satisfied by Truth itself, which is Christ.

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Enchanting Evil in “The Crimes of Grindelwald”

[Warning: While there are no major plot spoilers, there are plenty of character spoilers throughout.]

For a movie entitled The Crimes of Grindelwald, there are noticeably few moments wherein the villain himself commits crimes. And yet, there is something about this villain that causes a cold shiver to crawl down the spine.

Evil manifests itself in different ways. On the one hand, the original villain from the J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Voldemort, demonstrates a pure and volatile malice. He embodies a chaotic power which strikes in anger against all who stand in his way, and at times he even lashes out against his own followers. On the other hand, Grindelwald does something different: he is cold, calm, and calculating. Everything seems to fall exactly according to the mechanizations of his will. Murders and disaster occur in his wake, but he is not the one to commit them.

No. Grindelwald is something worse—he leads others to evil by using their own desires. As one character indicates of Grindelwald, “He’s extremely powerful. We’ve had to change his guard three times—he’s very…persuasive. So we removed his tongue.” That one-line introduction to the villain sets the tone for a much different adventure in the latest addition to J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Grindelwald is dangerous, not because he kills but because he speaks to the worst desires and fears within characters.

Early in the movie, Grindelwald stands in the middle of the street, looking with the audience through the windows as his accomplices murder a family and steal their home. He says nothing in the scene, but it is clear that those around him act under his command. When he eventually walks into the house, a cry from upstairs pulls him and his minions into a nursery where Grindelwald awkwardly stares at a child. Upon leaving the nursery, we see a green flash—a clear indication of a murder in the Harry Potter world. Throughout all of this, Grindelwald remains silent. And yet, we cannot help but feel that despite his silence, Grindelwald animates these atrocities.

The silver-tongued Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp, echoes what St. Ignatius of Loyola talks about with the “false spirit.” For Ignatius, the false spirit speaks to our despair and our fears, using them to motivate us into action. The false spirit also tells us what we want to hear—in terms of affirming those surface desires which we know deep down do not fit our true purpose. Yet, despite the false spirit’s lies, we all too easily fall prey to their appeal.

Lies and truth play an essential role in the movie, and they also play a role within our own lives. Grindelwald, like the false spirit, speaks to those surface desires which ignore the deeper wounds and truths.

In one instance, Grindelwald whispers his lies to Queenie Goldstein, a friend of Newt Scamander, promising her that he supports her desire for love and the creation of a world in which one can love freely. He speaks slowly, cautiously approaching her physically as she stands firm with her wand pointed square at his chest. She caves, even handing her wand over to him in a moment of surrender. What is striking is that Queenie must know—as the audience does—that Grindelwald is lying to her. He seeks to rule the world, and part of that desire rests upon his desire to torment and kill non-magical people. Yet, he speaks to her desires for love, and she falls.

Both Ignatius and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald propose similar plans for defeating the false spirit: you must speak and hold to the truth.

The characters who are fundamentally good, the moral exemplars, seek what is right. As Dumbledore claims of Newt Scamander, the protagonist, “You simply ask, is the thing right in itself? If it is, then I must do it no matter the cost.” There is a cost to doing what is right and seeking what is true. Often truth means facing hard realities, acknowledging one’s sins and failings, or even realizing that there is no easy solution to a situation.

The Crimes of Grindelwald clearly builds on this tension. When Queenie uses a love potion, Newt Scamander confronts her. His words are harsh, but they are true. That brave stance from Newt leads to the discomfort of accepting that a situation cannot be fixed with an easy potion.

In another moment, Dumbledore addresses one character about disclosing a secret: “It’s never too late to free yourself. Confession is a relief, I’m told. A great weight lifted.” His words seek to draw from her a public statement which would undercut Grindelwald’s plans, but the confession would also mean facing her own failings, sins, and past. She is faced with a hard choice: the pleasant and convenient lies, or the hard and uncomfortable truth. Revealing the truth—the right choice—comes with shame, but letting the lie persist risks the lives of others.

Fundamentally, that false spirit speaks the words we want to hear, but these words fall short of what we know deep down to be true. Grindelwald’s suave and careful language similarly conceals the truth. His words are easy to accept, but they lead to the same desolation and destruction that the false spirit seeks for us.

The way to defeat both Grindelwald and the false spirit lies in the bravery both to name the speaker as villain and to hold onto the truth, despite the fact that the lies might seem more appealing in the moment. It forces us to choose sides in the battle, just like the characters must choose within The Crimes of Grindelwald. Will the characters in the movie—and will we—hold onto the truth, or will we fall into the trap of the villain’s lovely lies?

 

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Defend (or Ditch) Democracy

The default news story these past two years has been the latest development in the Congressional investigation into the extent of Russian influence and/or interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Allegations include Russians creating fake online profiles to troll  social media, Russians hacking the Democratic National Committee to obtain personal emails from the Clinton campaign, and the Russian government itself authorizing any or all of these activities. Further questions seek to find out to what extent the Trump campaign (and President Trump himself) accepted and/or sought such assistance.

What if, just for a few minutes, we consider the possibility that focusing on the massive splinter in the eyes of Russians has blinded us to the beam in our own eyes? What if the biggest threat to our democracy isn’t the integrity of our elections in the face of alleged foreign attacks but rather the integrity of the values we the People inject into our democracy?

I’m not saying what Russians allegedly did aren’t threats to our democracy – they are. The government does indeed have a duty to investigate all allegations of illegal activity. Even if we address these concerns, however, what I think we need to be honest about as residents of a representative democracy is how the values we bring to the polls pose a bigger threat, having the potential to compromise the desirability of democracy altogether.

At the heart of the problem is our blind acceptance that the highest law of the land is the United States Constitution. The Constitution, as with any human-created law, by itself cannot define what is right or wrong. Human-created laws in a democracy only have the force of law, because the majority decided them to be so (either directly or through representatives). The argument “the majority decided it should be this way,” however, is as unsatisfactory a justification for why we ought to (not) do something as when a parent tells a child to (not) do something “because I said so.”

Authentic democracy cannot exist if each person gets to decide what is true and hopes that the majority agrees. If all we have are human-made laws, democracy becomes another system in which the strongest gets his way. If you yell the loudest, publicly shame others the most, and outspend your opponents, then you can pass the laws that align with your truth. Society turns into the perpetual us vs. them zero-sum struggle that we’ve seen on steroids the past two years.

If no law we create by itself can define what’s right and wrong, does that mean that we must live in anarchy? Not if we accept that there are laws that humans don’t create but that we discover – a higher law that in itself shows us what is right and wrong.

The existence of a law higher than the Constitution is shown in the example of slavery. Our democracy did not outlaw slavery until the passage of the 13th Amendment, but it’d be difficult to find many people these days who would argue that until its passage, slavery was the right thing for our society. We agree that slavery itself is wrong, which points to the fact that the Constitution does not dictate what is right and wrong. It shows that human-made laws like the Constitution must conform to (or at least not contradict) this higher law that exists.

At this point, some might be thinking, “That’s exactly why we need to focus our efforts on passing laws that do reflect this higher law.” The problem with just changing laws is that even after we outlawed slavery, it is still a thriving industry not only in our country, but around the world. There are more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. The issue here isn’t whether or not we should pass laws to correct injustice (we should), but that changing laws alone isn’t enough for our democracy.

***

What we also need is to change hearts. We tend to ignore this challenge, in part because it is much more challenging. Why try to convince the other 49% when 51% of us can just force them to act a certain way by passing laws? Changing hearts, however, means that we actually need to be ready to admit that despite our lived experiences, that there may be another way to see the world that speaks more truly and authentically to who we are as human beings. We have increasingly divided ourselves into identity tribes, because we’ve forgotten above all that our true identity is primarily found in our relationship with God. Identities such as race and gender among others are how we relate to other human beings. These secondary identities only make sense if we understand our primary identity as a human person, an understanding we can only achieve if we recognize God. Unfortunately, our values as Americans have become so rooted in rights, cost-benefit analyses, comfort, and consent.1 It’s no wonder that “We the People” have increasingly become “I the decider of truth.”

We are at a time in our nation’s history when we have one of two choices. One option is that we the People continue our adolescent rejection of Truth. Going down this path means that democracy has failed its basic function to discover what is true, and we would therefore have a moral obligation to ditch democracy. Maybe that leads us to accept a “father-knows-best” government in which the higher law is imposed upon us. Or maybe it leads faithful Christians to adopt the principles of the Catholic Worker movement or the Benedict Option in which we personally cast aside “what belongs to Caesar” so as to devote our whole lives to “what belongs to God.”

The other option is that we choose to defend our democracy by seeking out the Truth of the higher law. Going down this path means that we dialogue with others: learning from those who are more knowledgeable and sharing the diverse ways we’ve encountered God, other human beings, and creation in general. Not only does this allow us to recognize what is just, it also allows us to pass laws that conform with the higher law – the Truth we hold to be self-evident.

Just like in the ongoing investigation into foreign influence and/or interference of our elections, our search of the higher law is based on the reality that there is a truth and we can discover it. Unlike foreign attacks that threaten our democracy, if we the People continue to individually “live your (own) truth,” then we’ve sentenced our democracy and country to death.

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“Boy Erased,” Conversion Therapy, and the Catholic Church

[Note: This review includes spoilers.]

Boy Erased is a film based on the true story of Garrard Conley, as told in his autobiographical book by the same name. In the movie, Conley is portrayed as “Jared” by the brilliant Lucas Hedges, while his mother and father are played by the equally gifted Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.

Jared is a 19-year-old teenage son of a preacher from Arkansas. Early in the movie, he is painfully outed as gay to his parents by another student who had raped him at college. Jared is too ashamed to admit to his parents that he was raped, but feels forced to tell his parents he is gay.

“I…think about men. I don’t know why, and I am so sorry,” Jared says to his parents, whose eyes well with tears of fear and pain. This leads to him being sent to a two week gay conversion therapy program called “Love in Action.”

The conversion therapy includes making a family tree of “hereditary” sins (addiction, homosexuality, mental illness, etc.), learning to “stand like a man,” and a communal confession of past sexual sins recorded on a Handycam.

In the climatic scene, Jared breaks down and calls his mother to come take him away from “Love in Action”. She picks him up, and despite his father’s protests, they drive away and never turn back.

I left the theater stunned after viewing this movie. Stunned because of the brutality of what happened, and because this is merely one out of thousands of similar stories. I was enraged by the tragedy of how Christianity could be warped to such an extent that people would be harmed in this way.

But the most troubling question that rose in my mind was whether it was possible that Catholic Church teaching or pastoral practice with LGBTQ people had contributed to the kind of violence depicted in Jared’s story.

I knew I could not brush this question aside by merely affirming that I personally found conversion therapy abhorrent, or by making some sort of abstract argument. I needed to know whether the actual practice and concrete history of my faith tradition contributed to this kind of violence. So I began digging and here’s what I found:

  • In 1973 the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1980, Fr. John Harvey became the founding director of Courage as a ministry to people “experiencing same-sex attractions (SSA).” The purpose of Courage has been to help people with SSA live a chaste life according to the teaching of the Church. Into the 1990’s, Courage literature affirmed, “for those who really want it, reparative [conversion] therapy is a possibility and happens regularly.”
  • In a 2001, an article originally penned by Harvey and reprinted with his and Courage’s permission reiterated this point, stating, “For those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly. Men and women leave behind not only the homosexual lifestyle but also the very feelings of same-sex attraction. While all can investigate this option, teens and young adults are especially invited to consult competent therapists.”
  • After founding Courage, Fr. Harvey published several popular books that among other things condoned conversion or “reparative” therapy for homosexual individuals. In 1994, Courage had grown to the point of gaining support from the Holy See. Harvey eventually stepped down as director of the organization in 2008. The organization has since stated that it does not support conversion therapy, though there remain unsettling connections. Today it is one of the largest ministries to LGBTQ Catholics in the U.S.
  • Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a Catholic psychologist, was the co-founder and president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality which began in 1992 (NARTH).1 This organization promoted research concerning conversion therapy treatment for homosexual persons. In 2010, the Society of Catholic Social Scientists awarded Nicolosi the “Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award” for Catholic Social Action. Two Cardinals, seven archbishops, and eight bishops sit on the Bishops Board for this organization.
  • In 2006, a document from the USCCB titled “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” took an ambiguous stance toward conversion therapy.2 In 2016, a spokesperson for the Mexican bishops implied their support of conversion therapy. While U.S. bishops have not specifically affirmed conversion therapy in recent years, I could not find any significant public and collective denouncement of its practice.
  • For a contemporary example of how discussion of conversion therapy continues to persist in some Catholic circles, see this video of the Patrick Coffin Show, published in May, 2018 (beginning at 45:10).

In sum, the Catholic Church has had a troubling connection with conversion therapy over the past fifty years. Several of the individuals and organizations above have had powerful influence at least within the American Catholic Church, and probably beyond.

One may still object to the claim that Boy Erased implicates the Catholic Church in the suffering of LGBTQ people in conversion therapy. The film, of course, is not explicitly about a Catholic community. And perhaps the practices that Fr. Harvey, Courage, and NARTH/ATCSI promoted were different and not as extreme as those shown in the film.

Yet even after examining this history and seeing Boy Erased, I sense that there is something deeper and more damaging at the root of all of this that strikes at the very core of LGBTQ people.

It is the belief that their orientation understood as a “disorder” is an evil rot at the core of their hearts. It’s the belief that every element of that part of them; each attraction, each stirring, each thought, is pure poison to the soul. Here I think is the deepest suffering that a story like Boy Erased reveals.

In his book, Conley writes:

“…a constant guilty ache…ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive….What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”

Boy Erased is a story of how damaging shame about one’s sexual orientation can be. It shows how even a “philosophical/theological” notion of “disorder” can twist its way through people’s minds and lives to the point that it becomes embodied in individuals, in their families, and even in entire institutions.

I am not here to debate the Church’s moral teaching about homosexuality. And I am optimistic enough to believe that our Church leaders and many Catholics have no malicious intent toward homosexual people when they defend the language of “disorder.”3 must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358).]

But regardless of intention, the truth of the past is that this language and the ideas surrounding homosexuality in the Church have morphed into destructive messages of shame. These messages have lodged themselves deep in the hearts of LGBTQ children, teenagers, and adults and have caused mental illness, family abandonment, physical violence, and even suicide.

In Boy Erased, I see more clearly the meaning of Jesus’ words, “You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Lk. 11:46).

Yet remarkably, like Christ, many LGBTQ people have not responded with vengeful dismissal of the people who have hurt them. Rather, they respond as Christ did with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34).

The story of Boy Erased ends with Garrard Conley forgiving his mother, whom he now has a wonderfully loving relationship. And he continues to dialogue with his father, seeking understanding. Hopefully Boy Erased can both illuminate the pain that so many people have experienced, but also point us toward a path of forgiveness and healing.

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Let’s Go! Pokémon is Back

Could Pokemania be back again?

For years, Pokémon fans have been clamoring for a 3-D console game. 1 The series began on the original Gameboy in 1998 and exploded a couple of years ago with the popularity of Pokémon Go, which had people in the streets with phones outstretched as they searched for creatures.

Tomorrow, Nintendo will release Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu and its sister game Pokémon: Let’s Go Eevee for the Nintendo Switch. The games provide a chance to return to the world of the original three games with a new mechanic for catching the creatures and even a chance to sync a file to Pokémon Go for additional Pokémon.

What do the fans have to say?

So far, the game has been met with mixed feelings. These newest games return to the initial region and Pokémon from the first games, much like Pokémon Go. 2 But, is this the best approach? It is one thing to return to what made the games popular to begin with, but going to the well too often can lose the magic of those early games and devolve into nostalgia pandering.

In addition, one of the key mechanics of Pokémon games from the beginning has been battling the wild creatures. These have been removed in favor of a more streamlined experience. Instead of engaging wild Pokémon in battle, a player can simply capture them like in Pokémon Go.  Though this change makes the game more accessible to new players, does the new mechanic cheapen the sense of progression players have felt over the last 20 years?

How should Nintendo handle this dynamic? Is it more important to appease long-time fans? Or should the goal be to welcome in a new generation?

The new adaptations allow more people to get to know the world of Pokémon, and broaden their audience so that more people have a chance to interact with the franchise. It spreads the influence of the games to more people, allowing for new connections to be made. The new fans can bring an enthusiasm the older ones have forgotten about over the years, and the old ones can mentor the new ones about strategies and experience the world through fresh eyes.

We can ask these same questions about all kinds of institutions, not just gaming franchises. Is it more important to continue long-time traditions? Or should the goal be to reach out and welcome new members?

When a franchise like Pokémon tries to expand its fanbase, how much accessibility and accommodation is too much before you start to lose the fans?

In the gaming world, Pokémon is not the only franchise with this kind of problem. The dynamic plays out in the world in front of our eyes. Look at reboots that only superficially resemble the series they were based on or, on a more positive note, look at how fan-based feedback produced games like Sonic Mania, a wildly successful re-creation. When we strip a franchise down to the core level of what made it good, then we can look and see if we are improving upon it.

In any institution or franchise, making changes does not mean that you need to strip away the defining characteristics that have shaped it over time. A discernment process should look to identify those defining features, while allowing an openness for changes that do not alter the fundamental identity of a given organization, institution or community.

For Pokémon, the question is not whether or not it is “selling out.” Rather, it is the question of whether or not its attempt to attract new people to the franchise has watered down the core mechanics and insights. If we dismiss something essential because it is not easy, that becomes a let down for us and the people we try to bring. But if we tweak things while keeping the essential aspects of the game, then we can reimagine our franchises in a way that improves on what was already there and allows people to experience the essence of the games.

How can we hold onto the essentials and tweak the negotiables in a way that continues to animate the community and bring in new energy?

I for one am hopeful that this round of games will succeed in re-invigorating the franchise while welcoming in a new audience. As someone who grew up with Pokémon and still follows what’s going on despite not having played the games or watched the anime in years, I want to believe that this opportunity gives new people a chance to experience some of the classic elements and story in a new light.

Change, when done right, is not the enemy. It can become the catalyst for growth and development.

 

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Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Gage Skidmore.

 

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In the Still of the Night

It’s 11:00 P.M. I have had a nice evening with friends and a few drinks, and now I am back in my room alone. No more conversation. Nothing to say, and nothing to listen to but the sound of fluttering leaves outside, the toothbrush and paste against my teeth, creaking floors, and the rustle of sheets as I climb into bed.

I prop myself up on my elbow and flick on the nearest lamp. Silence settles and thoughts and feelings begin to twirl through my head as I take a moment to be still.

I feel an anxious restlessness. Like I am waiting for an answer to a question, wanting to finish something I left incomplete, or trying to satisfy some craving. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t feel good. It feels lonely and urgent. All I know is that I am not content enough to let myself slip into sleep.

I grab my phone without any specific purpose, almost subconsciously. My unfocused gaze passes over the many digital squares full of potential connection: Facebook, Instagram, my Twitter feed.

I don’t find anything, but I can’t stop looking. It’s like my fingers are some other part of me, involuntarily passing through pages of stories, pictures, and comments. I am in a weird daze, all instinct and blind drive with no focused attention. Just a flow of images and words.

Eventually, something grabs my attention. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just works to fill this restless space. I gaze at the screen for an hour or so until exhaustion overtakes me, and I finally drift to sleep. It’s like 12:09 A.M.

***

Ronald Rolheiser writes, “…there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace….We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives, as Thoreau once suggested, of quiet desperation.”

This “fire” unexpectedly flared with particular intensity that night. Its intensity left me feeling like I was driven beyond my control, overwhelmed by a need to fill some sort of emptiness or longing. And my response was to fill it with a fast fix of social media. I didn’t feel resolution, and I didn’t know why I really felt restless. I knew I was running away from something that would return.

***

Sure enough, a few evenings later I have the same experience. This time, I resist the strong urge to grab my phone. Instead, I go to the chair in my room, shut off the lights, recline, and close my eyes. I hear the breeze outside, the soft whirring of the water diffuser, and the ringing in my own ears. I sit and breath, slowly letting my tense stomach muscles relax and my shoulders rest.

At first the quiet focuses my attention on the restlessness, making it feel even more acute. But at the same time, this quiet draws me to recognize that I am not alone in this tension. God is with me. So instead of grabbing for my phone, I turn to him. I let my feelings open to him, as if confiding to a friend.

As I do this, the urgency of my feelings slowly resides and gradually I start to perceive what was going on. I see that my restlessness is being caused by some sort of dissatisfaction that I have forgotten about or denied out of fear of what it might mean.

Now, as I face it I see that I feel alone and flat. I realize as I look over my life that I don’t feel excited or drawn by anything. I feel like I am in a fog without a hopeful guiding light. The only things that do come to mind are what I am missing: a significant other, children, friends with me from places I’ve left, etc. I am dissatisfied and doubtful about my life, and this leaves me feeling empty and vulnerable.

***

Yet as I begin to admit these feelings, I also experience another movement born out of them. Slowly my memory draws me to moments in the past four years where I felt unimaginably blessed, and knew I was right where I needed to be. I remember how joyful I felt in taking vows and laughing with my friends. I remember how my heart broke and grew while ministering to students and inmates.

I see that although I feel dissatisfied, it doesn’t mean that I truly am dissatisfied. Underneath my restlessness is a deeper and authentic current of commitment and love to God and my vocation. And I see that this commitment and love do not rely on feeling good all the time. It’s much more secure and sure than a sharp but fleeting feeling.

I realize that I can only return to the security of this deeper current if I have the courage to renounce passing distractions and face these feelings in my own solitude. I need to silently reflect, rather than turn to Facebook or Netflix for a quick fix. By facing myself in silence, I am able to come back to my true source of peace.

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